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The Neuroscience Leading to Greater Happiness

This article was based on the Mind Science Foundation presentation, “The Neuroscience of the Unconscious,” by Heather Berlin.


Heather Berlin The Neuroscience of the Unconscious


Studying Static Unconsciousness

Many studies of the brain try to understand why we see things the way we see them. This is the study of the static unconscious. It is devoid of emotion and meaning. Freud was one of the leaders in the field of the rich and contextual, static unconscious. Today, we have more modern tools to peer into the brain and test Freud’s theories.


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The Dynamic Unconscious

New studies are beginning to look at the neural basis of the dynamic unconscious. These studies did not specifically set out to explore psychoanalytic ideas, but they do in a non-direct way. Looking at the neural basis of subliminal motivation, they examine blood flow to different parts of the brain.

One particular study showed people a penny or a pound and asked them to squeeze a lever when they saw the most money.  The harder they squeezed, the more money they could win. When the subjects were presented the images consciously, they were more motivated and squeezed harder. When they repeated the experiment using subliminal images, the participants were squeezing harder when they subliminally saw the greater amount, even though they consciously did not see an image.  Researchers then looked at what was happening in the brain during both conditions. What they found was that there was similar activation in the brain during both tests. This is part of the reward system in the brain. They were able to determine that there is a circuit in the brain that weighs rewards and decides how to interact with the rest of the brain.


The Split Brain

In a more general sense, we can think about two systems in the brain. There is the evolutionary, older area, often called the reptilian brain. It motivates you to go for immediate reward and pleasure while avoiding pain. This is balanced with the more recently evolved areas in the prefrontal cortex that thinks about the long-term consequences of your actions. Both parts go back and forth until there is a consensus. They are like an accelerator and a brake.  When there is an imbalance in these two systems, it can lead to a variety of psychiatric illnesses.

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Suppression Versus Repression

Freud talked about subcortical impulses in relation to how we suppressed things and could push away unpleasant memories and unwanted emotions outside of our consciousness. Suppression is the conscious pushing away of these thoughts. Repression is when this happens unconsciously.

Different memory tests show how the brain activates when things are being pushed outside of awareness with suppression tests. In tests measuring repression, scientists tested to see where people are unconsciously attending to a field of space they are repressing. They found that with repression, the mind can unconsciously focus its attention where it wants.



There is also what is known as dissociation, which is where you split off and only have an awareness of these traumatic events in different brain states. With dissociation, or compartmentalization, these people have two different brain states, one is neutral, and one is traumatic. This is known as a dissociative identity disorder. In the neutral state, they do not have access to these memories. They only have access to the painful experiences in the traumatic state. They can have completely different reactions to stimuli depending on what state they are in.


How Neuroscience Can Make Us Happier

Uncovering things with neuroscience gives us tangible evidence of subjective phenomena. Research has revealed that it takes more brain activity to keep memories at bay. This is why Freud was right when he said that when people release their defenses and let go of the suppression, it allows painful memories to come to the surface. This research can help people to access these feelings therapeutically, so they are reintegrated into the brain in a neutral way. This way they are no longer affecting the person in a negative way or creating negative behavioral patterns.

More recent work looks at how to bring people to this state for treatment without drugs and in a more positive way. New research shows that creative activities require a sense of openness in which the brain does not have time to suppress things. In creativity, you can lose your sense of self and time.  This is the flow state that can come about during meditation, hypnosis, and during dreams.


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With the knowledge we have so far, we can better understand our unconsciousness. We can interpret our motivations, drives, and fears in order to bring them into consciousness. The more we can know ourselves, the more we can live in harmony with ourselves according to our own personal goals for a greater sense of happiness.


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